PHO702: Mark Power

I have been much enjoying the work of Mark Power, particularly his long-running and ongoing series Good Morning, America (Power 2020). Power is working here within a long tradition of American documentary photographers, and photographers of the man-made landscape, going back to Walker Evans and then Robert Frank and through photographers such as William Eggleston, Stephen Shore and Joel Sternfeld, among many.

From some angles this now substantial body of work can be seen as the Great American Road Trip (O’Hagan 2014) – both Power and Sternfeld have crisscrossed the United States – but in some ways that is to trivialize their work. What really interests me here at the moment is the degree of social comment and engagement among photographers as the American Dream soured and then became the grim landscape of dereliction and inequality that we can see today (and see too in many other countries including Britain). It is this unfolding historical process that connects my own practice to their work because in photographing my home town I am confronted with some of the same social questions that have confronted others in the United States.

To my eye there has been a noticeable move away from the more aesthetically based practice of Eggleston and Shore, what has been call the ‘beautiful mysterious’. It is possible to find social comment in Eggleston but that never seems much of an intent. For example, Eggleston’s Unititled (Memphis) of 1970 in Figure 1 may well contain social comment, in its utter banality and with the contrast between the poised and coiffured woman and the heavy metal chain suggesting perhaps the limited and confined role of women a patriarchal society. However, these points if there at all are never overtly stated.

Fig. 1: William Eggleston 1970. Untitled (Memphis).

When we move forward and consider Joel Sternfeld’s American Prospects of 1987, however, we can find some real bite and anger, images that sometimes suggest nothing much has changed since the Great Depression (Sternfeld 2003). See Figure 2, for example. Sternfeld is also good on immigration, portraying poor Latin American workers long before this floated up to near the top of the political agenda.

Fig. 2: Joel Sternfeld 1983. Family in a car in Tent City outside Houston, Texas.

Mark Power’s work in Good Morning, America strikes me as showing the same engagement and bite as Sternfeld, but Power tempers this with an acute, distanced and almost cerebral approach to what he has actually chosen to photograph. His are considered works, in part a consequence of using a tripod and a plate camera (now substituted for a digital back). In his own words:

‘My pictures are all about layers of information as well as detail. I make pictures which are in sharp focus right across the picture plain, so beyond the framing I impose I’m not dictating what the viewer should look at. Therefore, one can come to the pictures carrying the baggage of one’s own prejudices or, indeed, personal interests. You might call them democratic photographs. All I’m trying to do is to show what is happening in front of me as factually as I possibly can’ (Cannell 2018).

There is (I presume) a nod to Eggleston here in Power’s ‘democratic photographs’. However, it is really helpful to learn how these masterful photographers approach their own work. A phrase attributed to Power sums it up: think, shoot, think. The message here is that I need to spend time on the streets, enough time to allow the images to come to me, and that nothing is gained by rushing around trying to create social engagement where in truth none exists. Another view of Power’s practice from a critic:

He approaches the American landscape omnivorously, pulling in countless details so that a single picture takes on several interlocking issues. His frame is rational and studied, lending a sense of order to the chaos of highway overpasses, street signs, and power lines that litter the built environment. By shooting with a degree of physical distance and assuring each plane is in sharp focus, Power’s photographs maintain a seemingly objective point of view that leaves ample room for the viewer to wrestle with their own biases and proclivities as they work their way through the layers of information vividly presented to them (Harris 2019).

Here are two examples of Power’s work. Figure 3 shows a mysterious reddish building in Victoria, Texas. Its gaudy neon embellishments could be straight out of the practice of Eggleston three decades ago. In fact, however, this building is a bail bond office, not a bar or nightclub. The bail bond industry and the whole notion of this imposition on the poor  – in some ways the public face of the penal system for many – are a hugely divisive issue in America today. This isn’t something I can imagine Eggleston or Shore covering, but today it seems to me that one cannot not cover it.

Mark Power 2018. Victoria, Texas.
Fig. 3: Mark Power 2018. Victoria, Texas.

The second image in Figure 4 is a wonderful example of studium and punctum: a sad and derelict building photographed straight-on – no creative angles or touches here – until you notice the sign.

Mark Power 2017. Selma, Alabama.
Fig. 4: Mark Power 2017. Selma, Alabama.2017.


BRITISH JOURNAL OF PHOTOGRAPHY. 2017. ‘Joel Sternfeld on His Classic American Prospects – and His New Work’. bjp-online [online]. Available at: [accessed 17 Mar 2020].

CANNELL, Stevie. 2018. ‘Magnum Photographer Mark Power on Capturing the America of His Childhood’. HERO Magazine 4 Dec [online]. Available at: [accessed 17 Mar 2020].

CHANDLER, David. 2018. ‘Photographer Mark Power Documents the Collapse of the American Dream’. Financial Times 2 Mar [online]. Available at: [accessed 17 Mar 2020].

HAMITON, Peter. 2019. ‘On the Road with Mark Power’. British Journal of Photography 31 May [online]. Available at: [accessed 16 Mar 2020].

HARRIS, Gregory. 2019. ‘Cracks in the Façade of the American Dream – Mark Power’. Magnum Photos 17 Jul [online]. Available at: [accessed 16 Mar 2020].

POWER, Mark. 2020. ‘Mark Power – Photographer Profile’. Magnum Photos [online]. Available at: [accessed 16 Mar 2020].

POWER, Mark. 2020. ‘Projects’. Mark Power [online]. Available at: [accessed 16 Mar 2020].

O’HAGAN, Sean. 2017. ‘The Drifter: Joel Sternfeld on His Sly Glimpses of Wild America – Seen from the Endless Highway’. The Guardian 11 Jan [online]. Available at: [accessed 17 Mar 2020].

O’HAGAN, Sean. 2014. ‘The Open Road: Photography and the American Road Trip Review – a Survey of Photographers’ Journeys’. The Guardian 30 Nov [online]. Available at: [accessed 17 Mar 2020].

STERNFELD, Joel, Katy SIEGEL, Kerry BROUGHER, Andy GRUNDBERG and Anne TUCKER. 2003. American Prospects. New ed. Göttingen: Steidl; London: Thames & Hudson.


Figure 1. William EGGLESTON. 1970. Untitled (Memphis).
Figure 2. Joel STERNFELD. 1983. Family in a car in Tent City outside Houston, Texas.
Figure 3. Mark POWER. 2018. Victoria, Texas. From: Mark Power. 2020. ‘Projects’. Mark Power [online]. Available at: [accessed 16 Mar 2020].
Figure 4. Mark POWER. 2017. Selma, Alabama 2017. From: Mark Power. 2020. ‘Projects’. Mark Power [online]. Available at: [accessed 16 Mar 2020].

PHO702 Week 5: Work in Progress

The topic this week was the Gaze. I went out with the gaze of William Eggleston as my intent, or at least that of the ‘Beautiful Mysterious’ which is the title of a recent book on his practice (Adabie 2019).

First, here are four images by Eggleston that I tried to keep in mind as my intent, followed by some of my own work in progress. The idea is that nothing before my lens is favoured, but nothing is rejected either. I am looking for the special in the ordinary.

EGGLESTON, William. 1970-5. 'The Beautiful Mysterious'.
Fig. 1: William Eggleston 1970-5. ‘The Beautiful Mysterious’ (after Abadie 2019).

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig 2: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 3: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 4: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 5: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 6: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 7: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 8: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 9: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.

Fig. 10: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 11: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig 12: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.


ABADIE, Ann J. (ed.). 2019. The Beautiful Mysterious: The Extraordinary Gaze of William Eggleston. Jackson, Miss.: University of Mississippi Museum and Historic Houses.


Figure 1. William EGGLESTON. 1970-5. ‘The Beautiful Mysterious’ (after Abadie 2019).
Figures 2-12. Mark CREAN, 2020. Oxford at Night. Collection of the author.

PHO702 Week 5: The Gaze and My Practice

In looking at the photographic gaze and my own practice, I doubt I can do better than to quote Richard Misrach:

… all art reflects one’s politics, whether consciously or otherwise. Certainly, some images are more overtly political than others. Sometimes the politics are layered, problematic, and very complex. Being a white, male, American artist affects or skews my perspective on everything I do from the outset. The best I can do is try to keep this self-consciousness at the forefront while I work, and not assume that the “truths” I discover are objective or universal (Harris 2015).

Substitute English for American and that sums it up. However, what really matters here, I think, are the ethics of one’s position and the intent of one’s practice.

To begin with, I am not that interested in scopophilia and voyeurism (Mulvey 1975) though it is important to be aware of them. I like the visual and take pleasure in it, probably more than most people. That is why I enjoy photography.

I think this manifests in two ways in my practice.

First, I can easily get lost in the dreamy details of a scene and end up chasing those alone. I don’t think there is anything wrong with this but it can lead to rather weak images which rely entirely on abstract expression and from which thought, intent, a punctum is missing or at least insufficient. This course is helping to correct that. The following image and its dreamy bokeh would be an example

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig,1: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.

Second, my ethics are fairly straightforward. I am photographing in urban environments where it is very important not to invade other people’s privacy, or frighten or antagonise them, or remove their dignity or stereotype them by portraying them photographically in inappropriate ways. In a culturally diverse city like Oxford where people come from all over the world, this can be a tough challenge. That said, however, I am no saint and I am perfectly capable of being opportunistic.

For example, I made this image of an ‘uncurtained’ interior in the first module of this course.

CREAN, Mark. 2019. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 2: Mark Crean 2019. Oxford at Night.

Is this voyeuristic? It is tending that way and it certainly would be were there people in the picture. However, had there been people in the frame then I would not have made the photograph. Privacy would have been invaded. That said, I am now avoiding images like this and am concentrating instead on what the outside of people’s residences says. I am trying to concentrate a little more on the uncanny, the spooky and the surreal – the approach that has been called the ‘beautiful mysterious’, the title of a book on William Eggleston. (Abadie 2019) So the following image represents for me, now, a more ethically informed gaze:

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 3: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.

Another question here is the degree to which I control or express power through my practice. I certainly do, though I am trying to do this in particular ways. Two examples:

First, one intent of my practice is showing the other side of Oxford in contrast to its public image as a prosperous and elite university town. Therefore I am not showing the formal, postcard views of grand buildings but I am trying to show what those buildings may be saying from other angles. And what they may be saying is raw power, questionable money, elitism and an indifference to those who live among them. That portrayal is an intent, a deliberate choice. So here is my gaze upon a prestigious new building, the Blavatnik School of Government, shown from a less usual angle.

CREAN, M. 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.
Fig. 4: Mark Crean 2020. The Blavatnik School of Govenrment, Oxford.

The second example is photographing people. I have done very little of this because generally – so far – my practice has not been about it, though that may change. Portrait photography is a big challenge for me in terms of ethics, power and control.

I am comfortable with the following image – though I don’t think it is a particularly good one – because I asked the subject’s permission. The image was made with consent. He is someone I have chatted to on and off for many years.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig 5: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.

I would like to take a more considered and formal portrait of this person with better lighting. This will require getting to know him a little better. The question of manipulation – because I want something, a portrait photograph – arises. I imagine this question must arise every time a portrait photograph is taken and I don’t think there is any easy answer. All I can do is be aware of the situation as outlined above by Richard Misrach and of the importance of respecting the other person’s dignity.

There is also a subject that is likely to arise with almost any urban photography at night: homelessness. I can and do have an uncompromising gaze on the power relations of a society that allows it to happen, but I am simply not prepared to show the homeless directly. It strikes me as unethical and exploitative. There are many ways of approaching this subject indirectly, of which the practices of Martha Rosler and Leif Claesson are two examples. So the following image is my gaze on this difficult matter. It focuses on the signifiers not the signified:

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 6: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.

So overall what is my gaze? Somewhat sceptical, critical and dyspeptic, I think, at least when examining power relations in society – but I hope reasonably fair. Is easily, too easily, drawn to the merely visual and spooky, perhaps, but then this is often where the poetry lies. Finally, do I assume that my way of showing Oxford is the only way or universally true? Of course not. It is just one person’s view, nothing more.


ABADIE, Ann J. (ed.). 2019. The Beautiful Mysterious: The Extraordinary Gaze of William Eggleston. Jackson, Miss.: University of Mississippi Museum and Historic Houses.

HARRIS, Melissa. 2015. ‘An Archival Interview with Richard Misrach’. Aperture [online]. Available at: [accessed 3 Mar 2020].

MULVEY, Laura. 1975. ‘Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema’. Screen 16(3) [online]. Available at: [accessed 25 February 2020].


Figures 1-6. Mark CREAN. 2019-20. Oxford at Night. Collection of the author.

PHO702 Week 5: The Gaze

The gaze – how we look at and in turn are looked at – is a wide and complex subject. I am not sure how much I have taken in after barely a week’s acquaintance so I have divided this topic into two parts. Here, I will say what I understand so far about the gaze and in the next post I will try to explain how I think it impacts my photographic practice.

The consensus is that the gaze is about power. It is the expression of a society’s power relations and the degree to which we objectify others. Photography itself is also an expression of power.

The best definition I have found so far is from Sturken and Cartwright: ‘To gaze is to enter into a relational activity of looking. … The gaze, whether institutional or individual, thus helps to establish relationships of power. The act of looking is commonly regarded as awarding more power to the person who is the object of the look. The traditional of institutional photography, in which prisoners, mental patients, and people of various types were photographed and catalogued … function to varying degrees to represent codes of dominance and subjugation, difference and otherness’ (Sturken and Cartwright 2009: 94, 111).

Ironically, the gaze is easiest to see when furthest away. It is very hard to see in oneself. Thus is it not hard to recognize the colonial gaze fixed upon unruly natives, the cold gaze of the penal system (‘mugshots’), the dehumanizing forensic stare of the medical gaze at least in the nineteenth century or the bizarre humiliations arising from the gaze of crackpot theories like eugenics. There are also the gazes of class and privilege – think Eton or Harrow, household servants, miners or today migrants and refugees. See Figure 1.

Jimmy Syme-toughs-v-toffs-1937
Fig. 1.: Jimmy Syme 1937. Toffs and Toughs. This classic image was taken outside the Grace Gates at Lord’s Cricket Ground during the Eton v Harrow cricket match. However, it is important to remember that the class (power) relations it shows are mediated by both the photographer’s choices and the context in which the image was shown (a newspaper).

But all that, one might argue, is ancient history. In recent years critics and practitioners have turned their attention to the gazes that define the power relations of the contemporary. Thus the male gaze and patriarchy in general have become a key element of feminist discourse (Mulvey 1975) and extend into subjects not immediately obvious, such as landscape photography (Bright 1985). This in turn has spawned an interest in the female gaze (Jansen 2017). I suppose I should bring in voyeurism and scopophilia here but I will try to cover those in my next post.

These things are important because they define the fault lines that run through our societies now. For example, our attitudes towards disability, race, ethnicity and gender have changed greatly in the past half century. How we look – our gaze – reflects those changes. Unless we are aware of these things, we will understand neither current social issues nor artists and practitioners creatively involved with them. Another example is the many expressions of the gaze and of social issues in portrait photography (Angier 2015).

However, in each case it is important to remember that the gaze is mediated by the photographer. How the photographer chooses to make the image is also a form of gaze and will have a influence on how we read the result. This matters because visual experience is not nearly so straightforward as we may think.

Vision is a reciprocal process and reality is largely a mental construct. That what we see is created inside our heads – a blend of vision, personal experience and learned behaviour – is in the opening verses of the Buddhist Dhammapada: ‘All experience is preceded by mind, Led by mind, Made by mind’ (Fronsdal 2005). James Elkins has the modern take on this: ‘My principal argument has been that vision is forever incomplete and uncontrollable because it is used to shape our sense of what we are. Objects molt and alter in accord with what we need them to be, and we change ourselves by the mere acting of seeing’ (Elkins 1997: 237).

Looking as a culturally determined and learned behaviour has a long history. Larry Friedlander has an interesting essay on this considering among other things Rembrandt’s portraits, particularly his self-portraits, and ‘Las Meninas’ by Velázquez (Friedlander 2011). Of course both Rembrandt and Velázquez were expressing their own conditioning and the cultural assumptions of their time, but the point is that their paintings suggest they were well aware that a complex and reciprocal process of ‘looking at’ was involved.

The object does indeed stare back and each time we look at it both we and the object have changed. By the time one gets to Manet’s ‘Olympia’ (1863), the process has become much clearer and both the nature of the gaze and our ability to understand what is going on are far more overt. ‘Olympia’ caused a stir we can very easily understand today, given that it depicts a courtesan who is defiantly not submissive: ‘the unanticipated agency, of a female “object” who inexplicably returns the glance, reverses the gaze, and contests the place and authority of the masculine position’ ( Butler 1990: vii). See Figure 2.

Fig. 2: Edouard Manet 1863. Olympia. The ‘Odalisque’ stares back.

The study of painting makes clear that the gaze is not binary. We look at and are looked at, but we also look into a painting (or text) and the objects inside it may look back at us and/or at each other, or they simply look outside the frame altogether. And in photographic terms, the lens adds a kind of meta-gaze across the whole field. This is a cat’s cradle of reciprocity and is not at all easy to unpick.

Two final points have arisen from this for me. First, in none of the week’s readings has there been much mention of wonder, curiosity, lyricism, even joy, or the calm and neutral meditative gaze encouraged by for example Zen Buddhism and which has in turn inspired a whole movement in contemplative and dharma arts including photography. One might argue that these are hardly pressing social issues but it is wearisome to live in a world of politics alone, one that has no time for the extraordinary talents of a Lartigue.

Second, I wonder whether it is possible to flip the gaze. The key ingredient here is trust. This is a subject well touched on by Teju Cole discussing the work of African photographers such as Seydou Keïta and Zanele Muholi in the post-colonial and post-apartheid eras (Cole 2017: 121-5). Once there was fear and distrust but after independence people were able to meet as equals and therefore as themselves. Keïta’s famous ‘Odalisque’ (‘Reclining Woman’ from the 1950s–1960s) offers a proud, free, independent woman. And as Cole says of Muholi, ‘ … she shows people as they wish to be seen. … Muholi doesn’t grant her sitters independence – they are independent – but she makes their independence visible’ (Cole 2017: 124). See Figure 3.

Fig. 3: Zaneli. Muholi 2016. Ntozakhe II, Parktown, Johannesburg.

In other words, the gaze and its politicising tendencies are a form of imprisonment. We impose our values on something and thereby objectify it. But when people trust that they are meeting as independent equals, there is no need for such power plays. The gaze falls away, leaving what it was always trying to deny or to destroy: freedom.


ANGIER, Roswell. 2015. Train Your Gaze: A Practical and Theoretical Introduction to Portrait Photography. 2nd edn. London: Fairchild Books/Bloomsbury.

BRIGHT, Deborah. 1985. ‘Of Mother Nature and Marlboro Men: An Inquiry into the Cultural Meanings of Landscape Photography’. Exposure 23(1), Winter [online]. Available at [accessed 25 February 2020].

BUTLER, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York and London: Routledge, vii

COLE, Teju. 2017. Known and Strange Things : Essays. London: Faber & Faber.

ELKINS, James. 1997. The Object Stares Back: On the Nature of Seeing. San Diego: Harcourt Brace.

FRIEDLANDER, Larry. 2011. ‘Friending the Virgin’. SAGE Open 1(2), 215824401141542 [online]. Available at: [accessed 25 Feb 2020].

FRONSDAL, Gil. 2005. The Dhammapada: A New Translation. Boston, MA.: Shambhala Publications.

JANSEN, Charlotte. 2017. ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’. British Journal of Photography (Issue 7859. Vol. 164. May 2017). London: British Journal of Photography.

MULVEY, Laura. 1975. ‘Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema’. Screen 16(3) [online]. Available at: [accessed 25 February 2020].

STURKEN, Marita and Lisa CARTWRIGHT. 2009. Practices of Looking : An Introduction to Visual Culture. 2nd edn. New York, N.Y. : Oxford University Press.


Figure 1. Jimmy SYME. 1937. Toffs and Toughs.
Figure 2. Edouard MANET. 1863. ‘Olympia’. Oil on canvas. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
Figure 3. Muholi ZANELI. 2016. Ntozakhe II, Parktown, Johannesburg.

PHO702: The Uncanny

The uncanny has a chequered history. According to the OED it was not until at least the late eighteenth century that the word acquired something of its modern meaning; ‘Partaking of a supernatural character; mysterious, weird, uncomfortably strange or unfamiliar. (Common from c1850.)’ (Oxford English Dictionary 2020). Perhaps that is also true of other cultures and is why Freud devoted so much of his essay on The Uncanny to investigating the term’s meaning and origins (Freud 2003), although Freud was of course investigating the German term unheimlich.

‘Uncanny’ at one time seems to have been a rather vague put-down. An example is Alfred Horsley Hinton, editor of Amateur Photographer, criticizing some of  Steichen’s work in 1904 (for example, Steichen’s images of New York’s Flatiron Building): ’I admire Steichen’s work for myself but it is the admiration one feels for something strange and uncanny – I can’t think that such work is healthy or would in this country have a beneficial influence’ (Rahmlow 2016). Horsley couldn’t understand the symbolic, impressionistic, subjective nature of Steichen’s work and clearly yearned for something bracingly noble and simple to understand, a statue of Prince Albert perhaps.

Thus Freud’s essay of 1919, which has set the tone for our modern understanding of the uncanny, was also a much-needed housecleaning and forensic examination. Freud called the uncanny ‘that species of frightening which goes back to what was once well known and had long been familiar’ (Freud 2003: 124) and he tried to locate this in the unconscious and repression, at first in the infantile castration complex and then later and especially in the repression of death. Freud also located the uncanny in the repression of what he called ‘insurmountable primitive beliefs’ that he believed modern man still carried deep in the psyche. This is not an expression that would find favour today. We might now refer to traditional belief systems (for example the myths and beliefs of the San people or of indigenous cultures in Australia). More generically, we might even refer to primal instincts, and there is no doubt that in darkness our sense do change, become more prickly and alert to danger.

Interestingly, Freud invoked Otto Rank’s idea of the double or doppelgänger in this process: ‘The double was originally an insurance against the extinction of the self or, as Rank puts it, “an energetic denial of the power of death”’ (Freud 2003: 141).

Photographs are of course doubles (and Freud’s essay is full of eyes and seeing as symbols of the castration complex). The indexicality of photographs makes them ghostly doubles of reality but their subjective representational aspects always produce uncertainty. In addition, photographs disturb our sense of time. They show us the past in the present moment, both dead and strangely alive. This is Barthes’ ‘noeme (that-has-been’)’ and he spent a great deal of Camera Lucida exploring it (Barthes 2000). In discussing Alexander Gardner’s 1865 portrait of Lewis Payne, for example, Barthes writes: ‘But the punctum is: he is going to die. I read at the same time: This will be and this has been; I observe with horror an anterior future of which death is the stake’ (Barthes 2000: 96). Both Barthes and Sontag saw the photograph as a species of memento mori and in Camera Lucida Barthes wrote of how society tends to repress the threatening unruliness of art: ‘Society is concerned to tame the Photograph, to temper the madness which keeps threatening to explode in the face of whoever looks at it.’ (Barthes 2000: 117). In sum, as Nicholas Middleton writes in his study of the uncanny and photography, ‘Death is the ultimate incarnation of the abstract that is the uncanny’ (Middleton 2020).

I had not realized just how long and complex the story of art and the uncanny actually is. There is already Gothic horror in the eighteenth century and a plethora of dark imaginings in the nineteenth century as the strangeness of an increasingly urban world began to take hold. Ideas of the uncanny were incorporated by the Surrealists, because the yoking together of two completely unexpected elements can provoke that unsettling sensation of seeing the familiar in an unfamiliar context, after Freud. Examples are Man Ray’s ‘Cadeau’ of 1921 and some of Lee Miller’s marvellously original photographs. See Figures 1 and 2.

Fig. 1: Man Ray 1921. Cadeau.

Fig. 2: Lee Miller 1942. David E. Scherman, dressed for war, London.

Today the uncanny is perennially popular. It can be experienced in the alien but still recognizable suburban world of many of J.G Ballard’s novels and it is a staple of the cinema (one thinks of the unsettling creepiness of many Hitchcock films). The same is true of science fiction’s replicants and cyborgs. They take us back to the robotic Olimpia in E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Sandman which Freud analysed in his original essay and forwards to a contemporary interest in cutting-edge robotics and automata (Tronstad 2008).

The uncanny also takes us to a rich history in photography. I was very interested to see that an entire exhibition was recently devoted to it, ‘Magical Surfaces: The Uncanny in Contemporary Photography’ (Tique Magazine 2016).

The most useful survey of the modern uncanny I have found so far is by Caterina Albano in Esse Arts (Albano 2008). I particularly like the way she links the uncanny to a contemporary visual culture in which death is airbrushed away and meaning dissipates amid a bewildering display of Baudrillardian signs and simulacra: ‘Both psychoanalytically and culturally, the notion of the uncanny is increasingly inscribed within a discourse that invests estrangement, alienation and the other. Julia Kristeva poignantly underlines the experience of strangeness and depersonalisation as integral to the construction of contemporary subjectivity’ (Albano 2008). This is a very postmodern condition.

How does all this affect my practice? Since this is a large and complex subject, that will take time. I can begin, however, by realizing two things. First, that the estrangement and alienation of modern urban life are fertile ground for the uncanny. And second, that the uncanny works by combination to produce cognitive dissonance: the familiar with the unfamiliar, the expected with the unexpected and the presence of one thing with the absence of another. Like photography itself, these are all doubles.


ALBANO, Caterina. 2008. ‘Uncanny: A Dimension in Contemporary Art’. Esse Arts + Opinions [online]. Available at: [accessed 2 Mar 2020].

BARTHES, Roland. 2000. Camera Lucida : Reflections on Photography. London: Vintage.

FREUD, Sigmund, David MCLINTOCK and Hugh HAUGHTON. 2003. The Uncanny. New York: Penguin.

MIDDLETON, Nicholas. 2005. ‘Photography & The Uncanny’.  Photography & The Uncanny [online]. Available at: [accessed 2 Mar 2020].

OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY. 2020. ‘Uncanny, Adj. : Oxford English Dictionary’. Oxford English Dictionary [online]. Available at: [accessed 4 Mar 2020].

RAHMLOW, Kurt E. 2016. ‘The Admiration One Feels for Something Strange and Uncanny: Impressionism, Symbolism, and Edward Steichen’s Submissions to the 1905 London Photographic Salon’. Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide, 15 (1), Spring 2016 [online]. Available at: [accessed 27 Feb 2020].

SONTAG, Susan. 2008. On Photography. London: Penguin.

TIQUE MAGAZINE. 2016. ‘Magical Surfaces: The Uncanny in Contemporary Photography’. Tique [online]. Available at: [accessed 27 Feb 2020].

TRONSTAD, Ragnhild. 2008. ‘The Uncanny in New Media Art’. Leonardo Electronic Almanac 16(2-3), Feb-Mar 2008 [online]. Available at: [accessed 27 Feb 2020].


Figure 1. Man RAY. 1921. Cadeau. From: TATE. 2020. ‘The Uncanny – Art Term’. TATE [online]. Available at: [accessed 27 Feb 2020].
Figure 2. Lee MILLER. 1942. David E. Scherman, dressed for war, London.

PHO702 Week 4: Advertising

My understanding is that the point of the week’s overall topic – advertising – is to learn how to study and ‘read’ an image very carefully in order to tease out the intent(s) the image expresses. This is particularly clear in the case of advertising because by its very nature the advertisement is highly likely to be full of manipulative or hidden intents in order to persuade us to do something not necessarily in our best interests – following on from Barthes’ classic exposition of the (Panzani) advertisement in his essay ‘The Rhetoric of the Image’ (Barthes 1977).

Such a study can then be put to very good use when we focus on the intent in the images we make ourselves. And it is also true that the images we make ourselves may contain hidden messages – that is, unconscious assumptions or biases we have not yet revealed to ourselves but which others can see.

So overall, I found this a very useful lesson. However, not an easy lesson to learn because in the case of advertising I am simply an oppositional person to all forms of it because I am looking at an advert. I am not really a fully signed-up member of the status quo and I try quite hard to keep advertising and other intrusive things (like ‘news’ which isn’t and lots of TV) out of my life. This means that dominant and negotiated readings (to bring in the full trifecta) don’t come into my view of advertising whereas they do very much with, for examples, the practice of other photographers or with cinema.

However, looking is a reciprocal process. Looking at an advert can change the way I think, and knowing more about its background can change how I think about it too. For example, I did not know when I wrote below about a Nespresso advert that George Clooney had used some of his endorsement fees to support the people of the Sudan (Nguyen 2013). Or that Clooney recently expressed support for a report which revealed the user of child labour on coffee plantations in Guatemala (Guardian 2020). Good man. It’s just a job and it is only an advert.

Anyway, this is an abbreviated version of what I wrote about advertising in the weekly discussion forum:

This is a Nestlé Nespresso advertisement featuring George Clooney who is or was the face of the brand.

Fig. 1: An advertisement for Nespresso coffee featuring George Clooney.

As with all advertisements, I think it pays to look first at what the parent corporation says about its brand values:

‘Nespresso is not just a coffee. It is a sensorial experience. It is a lifestyle that is simple yet refined, offering timeless elegance … We continually infuse our brand with original ideas, flavours and innovations … Nespresso enhances the consumer experience with creative offerings at every touchpoint. This includes our presence at exclusive events such as the Cannes Film Festival and Le Bocuse d’Or. Our association with some of the most celebrated talents in design and gastronomy brings to life the perfect coffee moments enjoyed by consumers worldwide. … Nespresso has fostered a passionate global community with some of the most discerning coffee connoisseurs. Our Club Members value the brand’s innovative spirit and dedication to quality, style and service. They have made Nespresso a part of their lifestyle’ (Nestlé Nespresso 2020).

I am sure this advert has multiple meanings appealing to different people. Clooney is himself a brand, of course, so to begin with we have a double encoding, a brand within a brand.

Clooney’s brand values include elegance, discernment, unruffled success and sexual appeal. He is shown here in a dark, deeply lit, somewhat devilish light which I presume ties in with the brand’s stress on the exclusive, the passionate, the refined and the elegant. But – since the brand cannot speak of this openly – the advert’s unstated intended meaning suggests that behind these socially acceptable qualities lie dark, saturnine powers of caffeinated sexual potency that only Nespresso can elicit (hence the black expresso in Clooney’s hand). Another, similar advert shows Clooney with a finger on a gold Nespresso capsule in an obviously suggestive way so not much is left to the imagination here.

I interpret the strap line ‘What else?’ as saying two things at once. The stated meaning is that Nespresso is the default choice for the discerning connoisseur. The unstated meaning is buy this or else – there is no other choice. What else … nothing else. A slight sweetener is provided by the line in Portuguese ‘Café com corpo e alma’. This implies one might be taking part in something authentically ethnic (Brazilian) but in reality Nestlé is a Swiss-based multinational and the  more pressing  Brazilian connection – poverty and slavery – was revealed by the Guardian newspaper in 2016 (see below).

It is also important to note the presence of a Nespresso machine in this and almost all the other adverts I have seen. Nespresso works by trying to lock people in to buying coffee capsules from the manufacturer. This rather crude though successful and widespread retail model is here presented as membership of an exclusive club (‘our Club Members value the brand’s innovative spirit …’). So by purchasing a packet of Nespresso capsules or opening an online account you too can make a lifestyle choice, roll with George and become a sophisticated multi-millionaire sex bomb.

However, I do worry that decoding advertising in this way is also potentially missing the point. The real issue for our societies is not what the advert ‘really’ means but what it says about the power relations of major brands and their sometimes unwholesome effects on our lives. So the story with Nespresso is not really about Clooney. It is about sustainability, environmental damage and headlines like ‘Nestlé admits slave labour risk on Brazil coffee plantations’ (Guardian 2016). These are what matter, I would argue.


BARTHES, Roland and Stephen HEATH. 1977. Image Music Text. London: Fontana.

GUARDIAN. 2016. ‘Nestlé Admits Slave Labour Risk on Brazil Coffee Plantations’. The Guardian 2 Mar [online]. Available at: [accessed 18 Feb 2020].

GUARDIAN. 2020. ‘Children as Young as Eight Picked Coffee Beans on Farms Supplying Starbucks’. The Guardian 1 Mar [online]. Available at: [accessed 2 Mar 2020].

NESTLÉ Nespresso. 2020. ‘Nestlé Nespresso: Brand Essence’. ‘Nestlé Nespresso [online]. Available at: [accessed 18 Feb 2020].

NGUYEN, Vi-An. 2013. ‘George Clooney Uses Nespresso Money for Satellite to Spy on Sudan Dictator’. Parade [online]. Available at: [accessed 2 Mar 2020].


Figure 1. Undated. An advertisement for Nespresso coffee featuring George Clooney.

PHO702 Week 4: Reflections, Work in Progress

This post combines the week’s reflective task with my work in progress in order to avoid two posts which would largely repeat each other.

First, the reflective task is about the intent of my practice. My intent has changed since I started this course. My original intent was simply to portray a city at night. Then the intent became to portray a particular kind of city in a particular kind of way, which was the substance of my research proposal at the end of the first module. Since then my intent has changed again and I expect it will continue to change. I am deliberately experimenting at the moment, trying things I have never tried before, and I have also been obliged to modify my approach because exceptionally bad winter weather for a very long time has made night photography alone problematic – so I am now also experimenting with daytime photography in order to keep shooting.

My current intent is based on looking at the work of four photographers, mainly: William Eggleston, Todd Hido, Rut Blees Luxemburg and Stephen Shore. What has emerged is fairly simple:

  1. They do not privilege any particular object or kind of image. Everything falls within their view because they are looking for the extraordinary in the ordinary. This is Eggleston’s ‘democratic forest’.
  2. They are interested in the colours and tones of the night and particularly those created by modern lighting such as neon signs. This can often produce quite soft, saturated fields of colour in their photographs.
  3. They are very aware of space or emptiness and seem to compose very carefully with this in mind.
  4. They are generally not trying to freight any one image with an obvious sense of place. An image may be taken in say Memphis or London but it is not saddled with the symbolic or indexical baggage of trying to say ‘this stands for the whole city’. These artists travel light and allow their images to float free.

What I am trying to discover is whether the second point – night-time colour and tones – when combined with the third point – space and emptiness – produces the quality of the uncanny.

So my current intent is whether I can combine points 1, 2 and 3 to express the uncanny in my images of a city at night.

The ambiguous comes in at this point. The uncanny is ambiguous because one has an eerie sensation of not being at all sure what is really going on. I think that photography is inherently ambiguous anyway, which is the source of its power. This is the tension and interplay between the two sides in a remark attributed to Jeff Wall: there are two myths about photography, the myth that it tells the truth, and the myth that it doesn’t. It is the old debate about representation versus reality.

Do I think my attempts so far are successful? Sometimes, but generally not often. I tend to get in too close and my images would benefit from my stepping back and allowing more space. I have often used a 50mm equivalent lens, but I intend to switch to a 35mm equivalent lens because I think this would add more space again. In addition, digital is sharper and resolves more detail than the 35mm films of old. This can be an issue because detail and sharpness can produce an indexicality among objects one doesn’t necessarily want. I may need to alter my post production to introduce flatter colour planes and an uncertain, even dreamy air more conducive to the uncanny.

Finally I think I need to be more disciplined and more selective in what I choose to photograph. I need to make more effort to look for those empty and uncanny scenes and more effort to notice the extraordinary in the ordinary. Both come with practice and more shooting, I hope. In an appallingly wet February in England, this is not easy but I intend to keep going. I know that what results will change my intent again. This is an interactive process. The whole point of doing this course is discovery.

My work in progress here is preceded by two ‘key’ images from Blees Luxemburg and Eggleston. They are the intent, what I tried to lodge in my mind before going out and making images.

Mark Crean. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 1: An intent following Ruth Blees Luxemburg and William Eggleston.


CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 2: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 3: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 4: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 5: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 6: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 7: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 8: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 9: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 10: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 11: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 12: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.

CREAN, Mark. 2020. Oxford at Night.
Fig. 13: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford at Night.



BLEES LUXEMBURG, Rut. 2009. Commonsensual : The Works of Rut Blees Luxemburg. London: Black Dog.

EGGLESTON, William. 2002. Ancient and Modern. London: Jonathan Cape.

EGGLESTON, William. 1989. The Democratic Forest. London: Secker & Warburg.

HIDO, Todd and Greg HALPERN. 2014. Todd Hido on Landscapes, Interiors, and the Nude. New York, N.Y.: Aperture Foundation.

SHORE, Stephen, David CAMPANY, Marta DAHO, Sandra S. PHILIPS and Horacio FERNANDEZ. 2014. Stephen Shore: Survey. New York, N.Y.: Aperture.

SUSSMAN, Elisabeth, Thomas WESKI, Donna M. DE SALVO and William EGGLESTON. 2008. William Eggleston : Democratic Camera : Photographs and Video, 1961-2008. New York : Munich: Whitney Museum of American Art .


Figure 1. Rut BLEES LUXEMBURG. 1998. Narrow Stage. From: Liebeslied. Rut Blees Luxemburg [online]. Available at: [accessed 21 Feb 2020]; William EGGLESTON. c. 1973. Untitled.
Figures 2-13. Mark CREAN. 2020. Oxford at Night. Collection of the author.

PHO702 Week 3: Independent Reflections

The brief this week is to ‘find an image that interests you regarding multiple interpretations of the world and a “constructed” approach’.

The image I have chosen is from Alec Soth’s Sleeping by the Mississippi (Soth 2017). It is captioned ‘Charles, Vasa, Minnesota, 2002’. See Figure 1.

SOTH, A. 2002. Charles, Vasa, Minnesota
Fig. 1: Alec Soth 2002. Charles, Vasa, Minnesota.

Like all the portraits in this book, the photograph strikes me as substantially posed. An important reason for that is the use of an 8” x 10” field camera which necessitates ‘slow photography’ and a formal procedure.

Charles is shown wearing overalls, a balaclava, thick gloves and holding two model aeroplanes. He could be a modelling hobbyist emerging from his studio but given that he is holding model aeroplanes of a fairly vintage design he could also be acting the part of an early aviation pioneer and particularly in American terms Charles Lindbergh (this observation is not original to me), in the overalls, gloves and floppy leather headgear of the early aviators. The image therefore becomes iconic and carries a shot of American myth-making.

However, other elements in the image run counter to this. Charles looks a little eccentric (the round John Lennon glasses) and scruffy and down at heel (note the stained overalls, worn shoes and rough-cut hair). He is standing, possibly on a roof, in a rather dilapidated spot among pieces of building material such as a breeze-block. The weather looks like bleak midwinter, maybe by a house, maybe on a river boat. The image adds a touch of uncertainty and disorientation in this respect.

The suggestion therefore is that Charles is quite possibly a bit of an outsider, perhaps a loner, a rather eccentric person on the margins, in a tough spot, someone who does not find life easy. On the other hand, the image’s uncertain aspects, muted colours, shallow depth of field and light contrast – all somewhat dreamy – undercut that a little. Yes, that may be true but one cannot be entirely sure. There is both fact and fiction in this gentle image.

Alec Soth’s book is full of similar characters. In my view they are portrayed with restraint, compassion and understanding although they are often posed or set up to plug into America’s native myths. No judgement is involved. (See also the superb portrait later in the book, ‘Patrick, Palm Sunday, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 2002’. I have admired a print but unfortunately it was £10,000.)

I am simply pointing out that many of the portraits in Sleeping by the Mississippi can be ‘read’ in more than one way and it looks to me as if Alec Soth set them up with that in mind. These are not just characters. They are American characters and part of the American foundation story.

Why do I read these portraits in the way I do? First because Alec Soth has said of making his images: ‘The process is a little bit like day dreaming. I like to take the reality of the world and use it as a springboard for the imagination’ (Bubich 2015). This is exactly what I like to do. I do not like to stray too far into fiction even though I do feel that much of the power of a photograph happens when ‘the poetic quality of an image transgresses the indexical truthfulness of a representation’ (Wall and Galassi 2007: 337).

Second, because I too have an affinity for the marginal and the dispossessed. Somehow I just know. Perhaps I tend to notice them more or feel that way myself.

Third, because I am strongly opposed to the museum-gallery complex and its steam-rollering tendencies. Fashionable artists come ready-packaged like luxury products. It is almost impossible to approach their work fresh. One is told exactly what their work is about, what it references and what one should think of  it. I have found this a difficulty with truly appreciating the practice of Jeff Wall. I like and admire Wall very much, an unusually thoughtful and original artist. But add in the Gagosian connection, the multi-million sale prices and the forests of adoring and often rather empty comments on every website, and my feeling is that Wall’s best work risks being swallowed up by commerce and fashion.

I would position my own photographic practice much closer to Soth than to Wall or for example Crewdson, Hunter or Sherman. Without some kind of anchoring reality to the world and my fellow humans, I think the risk is of emotionally dead work trumpeted as intensely real but which is more likely to be intensely unreal and rather stilted. I have certainly felt that looking at the work of Crewsdon, Hunter and Sherman. I hugely admire their artistry and awesome technical and organizational skills but the results are too conceptual and they simply do not sing to me.

I do not feel that way with Wall: perhaps he is a finer artist or I am just more on his wavelength. I wanted to analyse his superb ‘Card Players’ of 2006 and its Cézanne connection for this CRJ entry but soon realized that it was impossible to approach it other than through reams of pre-existing comments and opinions, the packaging of the luxury good. There seemed no chance of a fresh view. A pity; it is a marvellous work with a witty touch.


BUBICH, Olga. 2015. ‘Alec Soth: “Photography Is a Unique Pursuit with Its Own Mix of Variables”‘. Bleek Magazine [online]. Available at: [accessed 18 Feb 2020].

SOTH, Alec, Patricia HAMPL and Anne TUCKER. 2017. Sleeping by the Mississippi. London: MACK.

WALL, Jeff and Peter GALASSI. 2007. Jeff Wall: Selected Essays & Interviews. New York: MOMA


Figure 1. Alec SOTH. 2002. Charles, Vasa, Minnesota, 2002. From:  Alec Soth, Patricia Hampl and Anne Tucker. 2017. Sleeping by the Mississippi. London: MACK.

PHO702 Week 2: Work in Progress

This post about my work in progress really follows on directly from my previous post about questions of authenticity, representation and reality in photography. I have been experimenting with the photograph’s essential ambiguity – that there is no one ‘truth’ it ever shows. There are many truths, or readings. Which ones come to the fore depend on the photographer’s selectivity, on the context in which the image is presented, and on the (often unconscious) cultural assumptions both photographer and viewer employ.

I will illustrate this with a rather Ruscha-esque approach which I will call ‘Nine Views of the Blavatnik Building’. The Blavatnik School of Government is one of Oxford University’s most prestigious new faculties, housed in a spectacular modern building designed by the top-drawer architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron. The Faculty’s website describes it in glowing terms: ‘The building has been hailed as a stunning new addition to Oxford’s historic skyline, and most of all through its design represents the values of openness, collaboration and transparency that are key to the School’s overall mission of improving public policy’ (Blavatnik 2020).

Inspection of the site, however, reveals that there are many different views of the Blavatnik Building and some are not very ‘stunning’ or prestigious at all. Nor is there necessarily much ‘openness’ about the design since from some angles the elite student body inside the building is completely shut off by thick plate glass from the regular citizens who live and work outside it. The building can variously be seen as a prison block, a rather sinister and remote research facility or an ungainly blob dropped into a landscape of security fencing and CCTV cameras – as well as, of course, a very fine piece of modern architecture.

Which views are valid? All? Or none? And does presenting these views as a grid in a single image alter one’s perception over viewing the images one by one? Anyway, these are the ideas I am experimenting with in my work in progress at the moment.

Fig.1: Mark Crean 2020. Nine Views of the Blavatnik Building.


CREAN, M. 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.
Fig. 2: Mark Crean 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.

CREAN, M. 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.
Fig. 3: Mark Crean 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.

CREAN, M. 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.
Fig. 4: Mark Crean 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.

CREAN, M. 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.
Fig. 5: Mark Crean 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.

CREAN, M. 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.
Fig. 6: Mark Crean 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.

CREAN, M. 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.
Fig. 7: Mark Crean 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.

CREAN, M. 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.
Fig. 8: Mark Crean 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.

CREAN, M. 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.
Fig. 9: Mark Crean 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.

CREAN, M. 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.
Fig. 10: Mark Crean 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.



BLAVATNIK SCHOOL OF GOVERNMENT. 2020. ‘Our Building’. Blavatnik School of Goverment [online]. Available at: [accessed 14 Feb 2020].


Figures 1-10. Mark CREAN. 2020. The Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford. Collection of the author.

PHO702 Week 2: Further Questions of Authenticity

The second question for discussion this week was about further questions of artifice and representation, and whether ‘photographs are so unlike other sorts of pictures that they require unique methods of interpretation and standards of evaluation’. This takes one back to the well-known article of 1975 ‘Photography, Vision and Representation’ by Allen and Snyder asking whether there is anything peculiarly ‘photographic’ about photography (Allen and Snyder 1975).

Allen and Snyder’s article is written by two sparky people who give the impression they enjoyed writing it. However, it is quite hard to work out what the take-away is. Once you have discounted the visual model, then the mechanical mode, then deconstructed Dennis Stock’s image of James Dean, what is left? Perhaps only: ‘We can also ask what it [a photograph] means, who made it, for whom was it made, and why it was made in the way it was made’ (Allen and Snyder 1975: 169). That, and acknowledging that looking at a photograph is an experience, not an intellectual exercise.

The pitch that photography is special and different, and that it requires unique evaluative tools, strikes me as yesterday’s argument. Does it matter? Photography is now long established as a contemporary artistic practice and various forms of it almost swamp our daily life. Photography’s field is far wider than it was in the 1960s and 1970s, encompassing video and multi-media, it is considered much more ephemeral and a huge proportion of it today (on social media) is much more casual. And since Allen and Snyder wrote, photography has also embraced fiction (typified by the work of Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall or Gregory Crewdson), something that began in the experiments of conceptual art in the 1960s. In fact, you could say that today fiction in photography has long been normalized and the photograph freed from being chained to truth by representation.

I can think of only two things that may – only may – distinguish the photograph. The first is that all photographs are and always will be deeply and essentially ambiguous. That is the source of their power and it derives from the tension between representation and reality. We know we are seeing a representation, but a part of us still sees it as real. We can never be sure how much is a representation we have made up ourselves and how much is ‘real’, meaning a direct indexical trace of what was there. We can never be sure we are reading the photograph accurately, and yet a part of us always thinks we are. It is neatly phrased in a remark attributed to Jeff Wall: there are two myths about photography, the myth that it tells the truth and the myth that it doesn’t.

This was one of the points of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s series of portraits from 1999 using wax models created by Madame Tussaud’s. They challenged the notion that we can understand a person’s inner character merely by looking at a photographic representation of them. As Sugimoto has himself said of these works, ‘If this photograph now appears lifelike to you, you should reconsider what it means to be alive here and now’ (Sugimoto 2020). We are not our photographs.

SUGIMOTO, H. 1999. Fidel Castro.
Fig. 1: Hiroshi Sugimoto 1999. Fidel Castro. The image shows a wax model created by the staff of Madame Tussaud’s.

The second aspect is that whatever is seen is altered by the act of being photographed and presented as art. This is an often-made point that, for me, is related to the selectivity the photographer has employed and the context in which the image is presented. This is also expressed in Stephen Shore’s remark that ‘Pictures exist on a mental level that may be coincident with the depictive level – what the picture is showing – but does not mirror it’ (Shore 2007: 97). The classic example here is William Eggleston’s 1970 image of a child’s tricycle, Untitled (Memphis). Just a rather battered child’s trike? No. Anything but. The same is true of Shore’s 1975 image of an LA gas station. Both images changed the way we look at the world by depicting things in a way they had not been seen before.

Fig. 2: Stephen Shore 1975. Beverly Boulevard and La Brea Avenue, Los Angeles, California.

A third aspect, possibly, is suggested by Hans Belting: ‘photography reproduces the gaze that we cast upon the world’ (Belting 2011: 154). Viewing a photograph is an exchange of gazes – ours and the photographer’s (and, depending on the image, that which gazes back at us). Photography for Belting is a medium between two gazes; ‘We see the world with the gaze of another, a past gaze, but we trust that it could also be our present gaze’ (Belting 2011: 154). The argument, in essence, is that all images are symbols and therefore it’s all in the mind.

So, two criteria possibly unique to photography and a third for consideration. How does this relate to my practice? The honest answer is that I don’t yet know. I am certainly aware of ambiguity and consider it very important. Changing how we think of something through the way it is represented photographically sounds rather like magic and I would like to explore this idea a lot more. Hans Belting’s notion of rooting photography in an exchange of gazes is intriguing, not least because it neatly sidesteps the whole of the reality-representation debate, but I have not yet worked out whether the idea really stands up and can have a practical expression.


ALLEN, Neil Walsh and Joel SNYDER. 1975. ‘Photography, Vision, and Representation’. Critical Inquiry 2(1), 143–69 [online]. Available at: [accessed 12 Feb 2020].

BELTING, Hans and Thomas DUNLAP. 2014. An Anthropology of Images : Picture, Medium, Body. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

SHORE, Stephen. 2007. The Nature of Photographs. 2nd ed. (r.) London: Phaidon Press.

SUGIMOTO, Hiroshi. 2020. ‘Portraits’. Hiroshi Sugimoto [online]. Available at: [accessed 12 Feb 2020].


Figure 1.  Hiroshi SUGIMOTO. 1999. Fidel Castro. From: Hiroshi Sugimoto. 2020. ‘Portraits’. Hiroshi Sugimoto [online]. Available at: [accessed 12 Feb 2020].
Figure 2. Stephen SHORE. 1975. Beverly Boulevard and La Brea Avenue, Los Angeles, California.